Friday, October 13, 2017

Brilliant Lecture by Dr. Renata Konrad on Opportunities to Address Human Trafficking Using Operations Research and Analytics

Today we had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Renata Konrad of the Foisie School of Business at WPI in our UMass Amherst INFORMS Speaker Series. This speaker series is organized by the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter with my full support.

Dr. Konrad's brilliant lecture was on: Opportunities to Address Human Trafficking Using Operations Research and Analytics.

After an introduction by Deniz Besik, the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter President, Dr. Konrad began her talk, which took place in the Integrated Learning Center at UMass Amherst. She emphasized that human trafficking is a global illicit business with estimates of profits of $150billion. It knows no national boundaries and probably is taking place in your town.
She noted that it is important to understand the demographics - who, what, where is being exploited and believes that there is a growing awareness of human trafficking . The associated challenges are numerous: the victims are hidden; often "hidden in plain sight" and with limited societal interfaces. Traffickers are covert, part of hidden networks, with dynamic adaptation, and it is difficult to obtain evidence against the perpetrators and to successfully prosecute them. Evidence may be "ambiguous."

At the same time there are opportunities for operations research and analytics in terms of designing prevention campaigns and identifying best resource allocation for media exposure; assisting in survivor detection and victim identification; searches for abnormal patterns in unrelated data that perhaps machine learning can assist with. I also very much appreciated that she highlighted that extending disaster preparedness approaches may be very useful in combating human trafficking.

Human trafficking is different from standard product supply chains, which calls for new theories. Unlike food or medicines that are consumed, here we are dealing with a "renewable commodity" Another challenge is that the data is incomplete and hard to obtain and often organizations that are involved in combating human trafficking are reluctant to share data with one another. In terms of network interdiction, the agencies may even have possibly different objectives and be non-coordinating with one another.

I was delighted to hear Dr. Konrad mention not only networks and network interdiction but that she also noted that there are opportunities for modeling in terms of illustrating the potential of interagency cooperation using game theory. We had shown the benefits of cooperation in a different context in a recent paper that we published on cybersecurity with Shivani Shukla in the European Journal of Operational Research.

Spending on combating human trafficking is not proportionate to the scale of the problem. At the same time, policymakers want concrete quantifiable evidence as to the effectiveness of proposed policies to address human trafficking based on return on investment. To measure the effectiveness of anti-trafficking policies is an important operations research problem in itself.

Dr. Konrad mentioned work in this area that she is involved in from New Haven to Nepal. She then spoke on two specific projects that she is involved in: 1. working on designing awareness campaigns using a production function objective and 2. selecting locations of rehabilitative shelters in the US (right now there are only 700) and there are 34,000 calls to the hotlines annually. Here, again, identifying an appropriate objective function is crucial in order to capture the associated benefits versus the costs. The latter work she is doing with her WPI colleague, Professor Andrew Trapp, and Dr. Kayse Maass, who is a postdoc at the Mayo Clinic. An excellent article by them on human trafficking analysis can be found on the INFORMS website.

Dr. Konrad was wonderful in answering numerous questions from the audience and also generated many research ideas - even establishing linkages between epidemiology and human trafficking as well as possible incentives based on research in HIV. It was great to have my Engineering colleagues Professor Erin Baker and Professor Chaitra Gopalappa in attendance, with their super questions. Dr. Gopalappa has done a lot of work in HIV prevention and modeling.

We took a photo of Professor Konrad with some of the audience members after her talk and presented her with a token gift from the Isenberg School of Management. Thanks to colleagues and students from the College of Engineering and the Isenberg School who came as well as other guests from outside UMass. I was delighted to even see an Isenberg undergraduate in the audience from my Transportation and Logistics class!
I then had the pleasure of hosting Dr. Konrad at a lunch at the University Club at UMass Amherst.
Deniz Besik also conducted an interview with Dr. Konrad in the Supernetworks Lab, and we will let you know when it gets posted.

We thank Dr. Konrad for taking time out of her very busy schedule to educate us on a topic of profound importance in which operations research and analytics can assist in fundamental ways, some of which have yet to be discovered.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Operations Research Speaks: From Human Trafficking to Distracted Driving to Wildfire Fuel Management and More!

Operations Research has had many successes from methodological advances to important applications and the solution of numerous relevant problems in areas as diverse as transportation and logistics to health care and even blood supply chains.

This semester we are very lucky to have a fantastic lineup of speakers in our UMass Amherst INFORMS Speaker Series which the UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter helps me to organize.

This Friday, October 13, 2017 we are hosting Dr. Renata Konrad from the Foisie School of Business at WPI in Massachusetts. Dr. Konrad will be speaking on human trafficking and how operations research and analytics can help in combating it.  Dr. Konrad I know through WORMS (Women in Operations Research and the Management Sciences), since she is this INFORMS forum's past President.  Also, Renata and I share a cultural heritage in that she was born in Canada and we both speak Ukrainian.
Renata and I were among the invited participants to a workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation on Disrupting Illicit Supply Chains, which took place last May at the University of Texas Austin and a followup workshop will be taking place in Arlington, VA in early December.

Then, on Friday, October 20, 2017, the chapter will be continuing its annual tradition of hosting a tune-up for the annual INFORMS conference, which this year is taking place in Houston, Texas, October 22-25. Given the horrific impact of Hurricane Harvey there it will be a memorable experience, I am sure. In this year's tune-up there are 5 doctoral student speakers who will be presenting the papers that they will also be giving in Houston. It's a wonderful way in which to share research and to get positive feedback on presentation skills. The breadth of topics illustrates the wide reach of Operations Research! The doctoral students who are presenting are from the Isenberg School of Management (and are in the Management Science PhD track) and the College of Engineering (Industrial Engineering). Two of my doctoral students, Deniz Besik (the current chapter president) and Pritha Dutta (the immediately preceding chapter President), will be speaking. Also, presenting are doctoral students of Professor Erin Baker and Professor Chaitra Gopalappa.
It will be a very exciting INFORMS Houston conference, since our student chapter, which I have served as a Faculty Advisor of since its inception in 2004, will be receiving its 12th consecutive award from INFORMS there - the Magna Cum Laude Award for its activities in the previous year!

And, the Friday after the INFORMS Houston conference, we will be hosting Dr. Shannon Roberts of the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at UMass Amherst. She will be speaking on driving safety and social networks - another extremely timely talk!
On November 3, I am delighted that Professor Dmytro Matsypura of the University of Sydney School of Business in beautiful Australia will be speaking in our series at the Isenberg School!  Dr. Matsypura was my PhD student and is also a Center Associate of the Supernetwork Center that I founded in 2001. He is on sabbatical this term and will be speaking on wildfire fuel management. Given the horrific fires now blanketing northern California, this is also a talk not to be missed!
Many thanks to the wonderful officers of the award-winning UMass Amherst INFORMS Student Chapter as well as to its members for enriching the intellectual climate of our campus and broader community through  myriad exciting activities!

All of the above talks are open to the public.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Doing Scholarly Operations Research with Undergraduates

Usually when faculty at a Research 1 university, such as UMass Amherst, conduct research they involve doctoral students, since doctoral students need to do research for their dissertation and, upon receiving the PhD, may continue onwards to do research, as faculty at other institutions or perhaps as practitioners. I have supervised the PhD dissertations of 20 PhD students and  I continue to collaborate with quite a few of them, even working with doctoral students of my doctoral students (nice to see the academic genealogy tree growing).

In the last several years, because of the growing prominence of the Commonwealth Honors College at UMass Amherst and also the Isenberg School of Management, under great leadership, we have been attracting truly outstanding undergraduate students and, my personal bias, is towards the Operations and Information Management (OIM) students, since they are in the department in which I teach at the Isenberg School.

I have had the pleasure of co-chairing two honors theses of OIM majors: Emilio Alvarez Flores, who graduated in May 2016, and Karen Li, who graduated in 2017. Emilio now works for Cisco and Karen for Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Emilio's thesis was entitled: Optimizing Non-Governmental Organizations' Operations and Fundraising: A Game-Theoretical Supply Chain Approach. He defended his dissertation at the Undergraduate Research Conference at UMass on April 22, 2016. A paper that we wrote, together with Professor Ceren Soylu of the Economics Department at UMass, was based on his thesis:  A Generalized Nash Equilibrium Network Model for Post-Disaster Humanitarian Relief, Anna Nagurney, Emilio Alvarez Flores, and Ceren Soylu, Transportation Research E 95: (2016), pp 1-18. I have continued to work with Emilio (below is a photo of us with my great collaborator Professor Patrizia Daniele of the University of Catania in Italy at the Dynamics of Disasters conference that I co-organized and which took place last summer in Greece).
At the conference in Greece, we presented the paper: A Variational Equilibrium Network Framework for Humanitarian Organizations in Disaster Relief: Effective Product Delivery Under Competition for Financial Funds, Anna Nagurney, Patrizia Daniele, Emilio Alvarez Flores, and Valeria Caruso.

The title of Karen Li's thesis was: Hospital Competition in Prices and Quality: A Variational Inequality Framework and she successfully defended it at the Undergraduate Research Conference on April 28, 2017. Her thesis is 100 pages. Below is a photo from the conference and defense - Professor Chaitra Gopalappa, the co-chair came, as well as many of Karen's friends and even family members!
And today we received some wonderful news: Our paper, with the same title as her thesis, was accepted for publication in the journal Operations Research for Health Care! In this paper, we construct a game theory model to capture competition among hospitals for patients for their medical procedures. The utility functions of the hospitals contain a revenue component and a component due to altruism benefit. The hospitals compete in prices charged to paying patients as well as in the quality levels of their procedures. Both prices and quality levels are subject to lower and upper bounds. We state the governing Nash equilibrium conditions and provide the variational inequality formulation. We establish existence of an equilibrium price and quality pattern and also present a Lagrange analysis of the equilibrium solutions. An algorithm is proposed and then applied to numerical examples comprising a case study focusing on four major hospitals in Massachusetts.

What I found especially gratifying in working with these exceptional students was their energy, intelligence, passion for doing good, incredible work ethic, and, frankly, "fearlessness."  We were going to solve these challenging problems, no matter what, and they permeated our dreams, obsessed us, and we did it! Perhaps it is better to have time constraints on the research in terms of a deadline in the form of graduation but, then again, you need the right students, as well as the fascinating problems. And this morning, as part of an email message from Karen, she said: "oh, how much I miss your lectures!!" Karen is the only student that I have ever had who took all the classes that I teach. Can you top the life and joy of being an academic?!